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Sorry, India's on the mobile please

By Sunanda K Datta-Ray
February 16, 2018 12:40 IST
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'If the volume of ceaseless chatter causes surprise, so does the boorishness of many mobile users.'
'The richer an Indian, the more s/he rates phones over politeness. It screams status,' notes Sunanda K Datta-Ray.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

The terrible tragedy of a bus in North Bengal plunging into a canal, killing the driver and conductor (two brothers) as well as at least 40 passengers, makes one wonder whether man has become the slave of gadgets that were invented to serve him.

Survivors blame the deaths on 'the driver continuously speaking over the mobile phone'. He held it 'in his right hand and the steering wheel in the left'.

Time was when mobile penetration was the measure of a developing society's development.

I recall reading China led the world in the number of mobiles per hundred persons. Not to be outdone, a Kerala writer boasted that toddy-tappers in his state were instructed by phone when they were up among the palm fronds on how many coconuts to pick.

Since toddy-tappers are traditionally bare-bodied and use their arms and legs to grip the trunk, I wondered how they manage a mobile too. It must be as perilous for them as it was for the ill-fated people in that country bus in Bengal.


Martin Kämpchen, a German scholar who has spent more than 40 years among us, wrote a brilliant, incisive and erudite article in The Telegraph seven or eight months ago in which he said, 'After the introduction of television no other innovation in social life has changed the Indian behavioural pattern as drastically as the mobile and, lately, the smartphone.'

The latter's photographic function is almost as great a nuisance as its connectivity. Selfies take priority as the crowds at Kolkata's Durga Puja or Delhi's Ram Lila click away with no flicker of devotional interest.

Kämpchen wittily traced India’s descent from 'The country is on the move' to 'The country is on the movie' to 'The country is on the mobile'.

The wonder is that people have so much to say.

Kämpchen linked loquacity with joint families, the urge to be constantly in touch with the world and the determination 'never to be alone'.

My half-Japanese, half-Parsee editor, N J Nanporia, who lived by himself in a gloomy colonial flat, used to say people couldn't understand that being alone wasn't necessarily being lonely.

Not many even in this legendary land of hermits supposedly lost in contemplation of the hereafter have the internal reserves to dispense with company.

A visit to the Kumbh Mela shows that godmen (surely a contradiction in terms?) are among the most gregarious of creatures.

Sadhus thrive in companionable akharas where mobiles have modernised communication.

If the volume of ceaseless chatter causes surprise, so does the boorishness of many mobile users.

The cell phone didn't impose crudeness on my Chinese Singaporean colleagues. Never once did any of them answer his ringing phone while in company without a polite 'May I take this call please?'

The richer an Indian, the more s/he rates phones over politeness. It screams status.

A neighbour rang my bell the other day and when I opened the door stood there jabbering away on her mobile taking not the least notice of me holding the door open until her chatting was finished. No apology even then.

Indians living abroad are no better.

In London recently, my wife and I invited the highly-placed young son of a Kolkata friend to lunch as a courtesy to his parents.

The young man spent the entire afternoon in the restaurant tapping his smartphone, only occasionally looking up to respond indifferently to any comment we made.

Listing the drawbacks of unrestricted mobile use, Kämpchen emphasised such social dissonances. That's because Europeans don't realise rudeness is not even recognised as an offence in the hierarchical India of godmen and quick fixes provided you aren't rude to someone who matters.

Courtesy is reserved for superiors. But there are other perils.

Scientists have warned of cell phones emitting radio-frequency energy that human tissues absorb.

The bus carnage showed that criminal carelessness presents a greater danger. So many motorists and cyclists either clamp a mobile to one ear or jam it between cheek and shoulder that it's a wonder there aren't more road deaths.

Cars with hands-free phones cause even more accidents in the West by lulling drivers into complacency.

When Singapore banned mobiles while driving, it also rewarded members of the public for photographing violators.

Kolkata is moving tentatively in that direction, but rules here only mean loopholes and more scope for bribery.

Which is neither here nor there for the mother crying disconsolately: 'Why did you have to talk on your phone while driving?' The driver and conductor were her sons.

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Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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